Headmaster’s Blog: Thoughts on Josef Pieper

A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart

I picked up this little book – I don’t remember where – it doesn’t even make the list of publications by Josef Pieper (pronounced, Pee-per), on Wikipedia.  At 54 pages, it’s more of a large pamphlet. But Joe Pieper can say more in a paragraph than I can think in a week.  So you don’t know Joe?  Most people don’t because he was a German academic, a philosopher, and most of his stuff is written for other philosophers.  His work is squarely in the Western Tradition for which he is an unashamed apologist.  For those like me – non-philosophers – he’s worth reading, even if one only lurks around the edges of his world.

Specifically, Josef Pieper is a Catholic thinker in the neo-Thomistic tradition.  That should locate him well enough.  The benefit I have gleaned is largely from his ability to explain Aquinas in fairly simple terms without quoting the Summa at length, something that is dangerous if you do; and dangerous if you don’t.  This little book, however, is probably the best introduction to the Virtues I’ve discovered.  Here’s why.

Central to Pieper’s understanding of virtue is that ethics and duty are rooted in reason.  Hold your objection for the moment; he’s a Christian and he’s not dismissing the Ten Commandments or divine law. What he wishes to make clear is that “duty is based on being, [and] reality is the basis of ethics.” I take him to mean that the entire created order of which we are a part, coheres comprehensively such that morality is not an abstraction of mere assent to the divine will.  It is not knowable only from the revelation of the Scriptures either; rather, it comports with the nature of things as they actually are.  The virtues are far from isolated pieces of morality to be collected by a believer as one would put apples in a basket. The virtues are bound together at the roots and are inextricable from another.

Of course, this is simply the natural law point of view, of which the virtues are a kind of summary, but Pieper is not justifying natural law. He is reasoning from it.  If you’re not a proponent of natural law theory, you’ll disagree with Pieper, I suppose, but you’ll be bettered by reading him.